Ian Harris: Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!


ian harris

Take a look at Ian Harris’ poster for his Critical & Thinking Tour—there’s an apocalyptic vision of a masticated skyline and in the foreground is a bald headed dude that looks like he might have either caused it, or somehow escaped it. That’s a pretty accurate visual description for Harris. His free-thinking brand of comedy although revered by skeptics, atheists and muckrakers is considered wholesale dangerous by the religious right. Why? Because Harris has the gall to question long held beliefs in a humorous manner. Sacrilege! SUSC talked to Harris about his formative years grinding in the clubs and how the transformation to irreverent soothsayer occurred.

DNA: Is this a good time to talk?

Ian Harris: Yeah, I’m actually just driving through LA to Arizona for a gig. But I’m at a rest stop now, so good timing.

Do you spend most of your time on the road driving between gigs?

I used to when I do 40 or 50 weeks out of the year, now I just do three days a month.

Where was your base for comedy originally?

I really started in LA. I tried to start in San Francisco. On my 21st birthday I went to the Holy Zoo and Robin Williams and Patton Oswalt and Wily Roberts were there. All these people that I had seen do comedy since I was 18 and able to get into the Punchline. I freaked out and didn’t get on stage. I moved down to LA for a screenplay that I was trying to sell and ended up getting on stage two months after that. For three years I only performed in LA. I started working full-time as a comic I moved back to the Bay Area in 1996. Those were really formative years. I started MCing all the time but I still wasn’t making much of a living—200 dollars a week.

Your career started at the end of the comedy boom.

I started in ’92 and by mid-90s comedy was dead. I kept being told that a decade earlier I could have made $80,000 a year MCing. There was so much crazy talk about how during the boom all you had to do was be able to say your name and you would get a week somewhere. When I got going all the clubs were closing down, rooms were being papered and nobody was making any money. Right when I started is when it went downhill.

Was your material in the early years full of social commentary? Or did you start off with a few years of dick jokes?

I was still trying to be conscious of what I was writing—trying to make clever statements here and there. But most of it was about my family. I was also really good at impressions. But when I started comedy, impressions were the hackiest thing you could do. So for the first four years I wouldn’t do impressions, unless people yelled it out form the audience. I finally got the blessing from Johnny Steele, my idol, who said, “You’re funny and original? Then fuck what other people say. Old man!”

Who was an obscure impression back in the early 90s?

At the time, and nobody has ever challenged me on this, I believe I was the first person to ever do Christopher Walken on stage. The other person I ever saw doing it back then was Jay Moore in ’94/5 on SNL. I did it in ’92. I didn’t even know his name. I was doing a bit on the Deer Hunter and I had DeNiro down and just did the other voice. People ran up to me and said, “You’re Christopher Walken imitation is great.” I was like “Who?” I used to do John Malkovich and James Spader and weird stuff like that.

Some people say it takes ten years to find your voice on stage. Do you remember the show where you thought, “Oh, this atheist stuff is killing it?”

Back in the 90s I had been doing the Laugh Factory a lot. Normally after a show you go talk to Jamie to find out why you’re not funny. I had always heard these stories that he would pressure you to figure out what’s your message, what’s your voice and what’s your point of view? He told me that I didn’t know who I was yet. I was so offended by that. I felt like I had been doing comedy for 13 years, working hard and doing well. I would use impressions to tell this story of how I my life was put together by my parents and it was cool and unique. It so happened I took 5 years off doing other stuff in LA. I was editing and doing voice-over work and raising my kids. Three years ago decided that I would get back into comedy, but I would throw everything away I had been doing. I kept two jokes so I had something I could open up my set with and feel comfortable enough to talk about things that interest me—skepticism, religion and things like that. I wasn’t trying to be edgy, I was just talking about what I thought was funny. Andrew Norelli and I have been friends a long time. We hang out together and go surf together and he said, “Ian, you’re so much funnier when you’re just talking about stuff that angers you, like religion. Why don’t you do that on stage?” He told me that for three years. I took up his advice and started doing it. Sadly enough, it was 17 years after headlining that I realized, “Oh shit, this is what they meant by point of view.”

How was the response?

People were floored. They saw my passion in what I was saying. I wrote a new 90 minutes in three months. It’s not like I want to agree with industry douchebags, but there is something about POV, or “your voice” that is identifiable to an audience. But if you are clouded by your own ego it’s hard to see.

It’s tough enough being a stand-up comic. The only time I ever got a death threat when I walked off stage was after a pope joke.

Do you find that those that are against what you are saying are more intense?

Yeah. Nowadays I don’t do regular clubs anymore. People are coming to the shows specifically to see me and hear what I have to say. It’s cliché, but the people who say they have faith are always the most judgmental of me.

Interviews, Uncategorized


One response to “Ian Harris: Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”

  1. Dawne McDonald says:

    This is great I’ve been a fan of Ian’s for m any years, since his early days. He’s always been funny and a lot of his comedy has been based on his view of truth. His great many impressions are so good, he’s an extremely talented individual. Thanks for your publication which supports comedy which I believe is much needed in our lives.

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